Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Giving Unconditional Love Even When It's Not Easy

Nothing Matters More Than Your Unwavering Presence

The best parents reach their limits at times. You might reach that point because parenting sometimes feels like a mystery; no matter what you do, you are not getting the results you want. Maybe you're at your rope's end for other reasons, and your patience is wearing thin. Possibly external forces, like peers or media, are influencing your child, her behavior is unacceptable, and you grow frustrated trying to counter those forces. Perhaps something troubles your child so deeply that she takes out her anger on you because only you are safe enough to dump on. It could be that, precisely because of how deeply she loves you, she needs to rebel in order to test her own wings. Remember, our teens rarely hate us; they only hate how deeply connected they feel to us.

No matter what pushes us there, most of us reach our limits and often don't like ourselves when we do. Those flashing moments when we don't like our kids can be even more unsettling. The fact is, one of parents' greatest challenges is being confronted with a situation that leaves them seriously disappointed in their children's behavior or desperately worried about their safety. These moments most directly challenge our resilience and our relationships.

What can we do at these moments? A first step is to reassure yourself that normal development is full of fits and starts, bumps and bruises. Just because you are in the midst of a crisis doesn't mean you have lost your child. On the other side of the crisis may be a deeper relationship and a son or daughter who has once more learned to turn to you. It may be that your steady presence is all your child needs to right herself, but don't forget that the best of families sometimes need professional guidance. The health of your relationship is worth investing in; assuming that "it will all work out in the end" might be a mistake.

The best advice I can offer to weather these storms is to never lower your expectations. Children are fully aware when parents' disappointment and anger overwhelms them. I have cared for countless teens who have told me they have nothing to lose anymore because their parents have already lost trust in them. I have heard this used as an excuse to use drugs, cut school, even to have a baby. I have seen it lead to depression. Other teens ratchet up their behavior a notch to continue to get the only kind of reaction they can still get from their parents. They notice that their exhausted parents have given up and begun to display that dangerous "kids will be kids, what can I do?" attitude. As a result, teens learn that the only way to get attention is to provoke a strong enough reaction to shake their parents' complacency. A very different but ineffective approach is to lower your standards and decide to be your kid's friend. Especially in times of crisis, your child needs a parent with strong, predictable values more than they need a friend.

These parenting traps can be avoided if we return to two of the core messages of resilience. First, children need unconditional love, absolute security, and a deep connection to at least one adult if they are going to be prepared to overcome life's challenges. Second, and most importantly here, children live up or down to adults' expectations of them.

Unconditional love gives children the knowledge that all will be okay in the long run. Even when we dislike or disapprove of their behaviors, our children must always know we stand beside them. Keep in mind that unconditional love doesn't mean unconditional approval. You can reject a behavior without rejecting your child. Love is never withdrawn or withheld based on a behavior. If you approach even your greatest concerns in this way, your adolescent will not go down the dangerous path of believing she has nothing to lose. Even as she may send you strong signals of rejection, she will eventually want to return to the greatest security she knows, your unwavering presence.

Despite our anger and disappointment, we must never lower our expectations. When parents hold children to high expectations, kids tend to strive for those standards. I am not referring to achievements; rather, we expect consideration, respect, honesty, a sense of fairness, generosity, and responsibility.

This might sound logical intellectually, but it's not easy to turn off the anger when we're confronted with a major crisis or deep disappointment. It's hard to heed the advice to maintain constant love and high expectations when you're worried out of your mind or seething with anger. You need something that will allow you to draw that deep breath to reassess how best to approach the situation. It is time to give yourself the gift of falling back in love.

You fell in love the moment you looked into your child's eyes and you were swept away when your baby grasped your finger. Well, your child might be a teen now, but inside is the baby you held, the toddler you chased, and the child you took to the first day of school. He may be ornery at times and need deodorant (badly!), but inside your 14-year-old is the 1-year-old who looked to you for cheers as he took his first steps, the 2-year-old who ran down the sidewalk to greet you as you came home, and the 5-year-old who could only be comforted by you when his bike toppled over. It is not just the memories of childhood that should remind you of how passionately you feel toward your child. Hasn't it been wonderful to watch your child learn to question rather than always accept? Hasn't it been wonderful to see her sense of humor evolve?

The knowledge of who your child really is can remind you of the highest expectations and greatest dreams you hold for your child. It may give you the fortitude to continue to blanket your child with unconditional love even as you are being pushed away. Not smothering "I can fix this" love, just the reassurance that you are not going anywhere. Re-owning this love may be just what you need to break the cycle of condemnation, excuses, threats, and anger that can easily overtake your home in challenging times.

Seeing the little boy inside of the young man causing you grief may be just the ticket that will allow you to change the negative pattern of interactions between you that pushes you to your limits of parenting resilience. You need a reset button, but perhaps your self-righteousness and your adolescent's pride and sense of indignation may be getting in the way of starting over. You can't count on him to make the first move. The love that blossomed the day of his birth is precisely what you can draw from to restore your relationship and begin to turn him around. It may allow you to set aside your disappointment and request a vacation from the stress you are experiencing in your relationship. You need some time together with no friction; the opportunity to enjoy each other again. Go out to dinner, to a beach, or to a theme park. Promise each other a vacation from arguments. Let him see that he is not rejected. Hopefully he will learn there is something to be gained by restoring your relationship and modifying his behavior. I can't guarantee this will work, but I can assure you it will not make things worse, whereas more fighting and displays of disappointment will.

I can genuinely state that I am blessed to have two wonderful, rather easy, daughters. But even guys who write parenting books have their moments. My girls are creative, independent, confident, occasionally strong headed (which will serve them well). But let me tell you who they really are: They are the children who at the age of 3 made me stop at the side of the road to rescue a soiled, worn, pink teddy bear that was "lost." It was scared and lonely, and they wanted to protect it. They are the girls who begged me to catch bugs and then free them outside so they could be with their friends. Genuinely good people. Faithful friends. Stewards of the environment. People who have a deep capacity to love and an instinct to protect the vulnerable. Funny, funny girls. Sometimes they drive me crazy, but I can usually sift through their behaviors to uncover the girls I know and love. My knowledge of their essential makeup makes it easier to occasionally absorb their expressed frustrations because I can (rightly or wrongly) reframe it as the flip side of the sensitivity I cherish in them. It's not always easy, but my recollection of who they are restores my senses when my patience wears thin. Most importantly, my understanding of their makeup allows me to always hold them to the very highest expectations-in terms of sensitivity, warmth, and empathy. They usually prove me right.

There is no magic formula for good parenting, and no words of wisdom exist to guarantee children won't stray towards some worrisome behaviors. I would never tell you that you don't have the right to be angry and display that anger. Just always remember that the power of your influence lies in the unconditional love you maintain for your child. There is only one place in the world where a child can count on that depth of security. You must remain a stable force so your child can securely navigate a challenging world. Finally, precisely when worrying about your child consumes every drop of energy within you, remember to care for yourself. Your child needs your strength to last; he is learning from you how to recover from adversity.

Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg is the co-author of "Letting Go with Love and Confidence: Raising Responsible, Resilient, Self-Sufficient Teens" with Susan Fitzgerald, and the author of The American Academy of Pediatrics' Book "Building Resilience in Children and Teens: Giving Kids Roots and Wings."

More from Kenneth Ginsburg M.D., M.S.Ed
More from Psychology Today